Gates No Friend of the Humanities

Inside Higher Ed:

During a sprawling talk in which he emphasized the importance of using data-based metrics to figure out how to increase educational attainment while bringing down costs in both K-12 and higher ed, Gates said that when the governors are deciding how to allocate precious tax dollars, they might consider the disparity between how much the state subsidizes certain programs and how much those programs contribute to job creation in the state.

Only the assembled governors were permitted to ask follow-up questions, and those who did focused on K-12, so Gates did not elaborate on what might be involved in assessing a university program’s contribution to job creation in a state. But whether he meant to or not, the Microsoft founder might have spooked champions of the liberal arts at public institutions already living in fear of the ax.

“It’s my understanding that the Gates Foundation wants to prepare students for ‘work, life and citizenship,’” [Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities] wrote in an e-mail reply to an Inside Higher Ed request for comment. “But Gates’s remarks today seem to shave off two-thirds of that vision, while emphasizing a view of work-related learning that is much too narrow and unsettlingly dated. His call to focus on specific fields and departments, rather than whole institutions, implies a sharp dividing line between ‘general education’ and ‘specific majors’ that is, in fact, a relic from before the Cold War.”

What might be good for graduates’ employability in the short term might not be so in the long term, Schneider said. “The question to ask is not: which majors do the best in initial job placement, but rather, which institutions are sending their graduates forth with big picture knowledge, strong intellectual skills and the demonstrated ability to integrate and apply diverse kinds of learning to new settings and challenges,” she said. “This is the kind of learning that both employers and civic leaders are pleading with us to design and it’s the kind of learning that a strong liberal education actually provides.”

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